Thomas Engelmann is a former high-ranking member of the Aryan Brotherhood, initially recruited two years after being imprisoned for robbery as a teenager. After he decided to permanently exit from the group in 2015, two members attempted to assassinate him, shooting him in the face in 2016. He survived, but with near-total loss of his sight. This experience served as a catalyst for Engelmann to rededicate his life to sobriety and charitable volunteering. His story has been featured in the New York Post, UNILAD, Matzav, and Mother Jones, among other publications. Engelmann now works to help others seeking to leave extremist groups through a process of “de-radicalization” with the not-for-profit organization Life After Hate and raises awareness about opportunities to separate from extremist groups and hateful ideologies by speaking publicly about his experiences.
What circumstances led to your decision to join the Aryan Brotherhood?
When I was 19 years old I robbed a service station and was sentenced to 15 years, as eight to serve and five probation. About two years into my prison time, I joined the Aryan Brotherhood. It wasn’t for protection or any of that other crap. I’m a pretty big guy, I can handle myself. It was mainly for family, community, and things like that, things I didn’t have. Most of my family had passed away while I was incarcerated.
Did you actively seek membership, or were you recruited?
I was approached by them. They saw me working out a lot because I was training to join the Aryan Nations, but I had to wait until I got out of prison and was on probation to do that. The head guys with the Aryan Brotherhood saw me working out and going hard, harder than their guys. So they approached me and asked me if I wanted to join. After some talking back and forth, I started my one-year prospectship process that had to be completed before I could gain entry.
What did that process entail?
They break you down mentally, physically, emotionally, and then rebuild you. It’s a type of brain-washing. About 80% to 90% of the prospects that try for it don’t make it. The recruitment process has a lot of militaristic qualities and borders on physical abuse. It’s a little like basic training, but instead of six weeks, you get a whole year. I had to work out. I was the target of all the brothers, physically. I had to constantly write copies of the laws, bylaws, constitutions, and full structure of the organization, about 31 pages over and over, almost smaller than type print. I wrote a copy for every brother on the compound and every building that needed one. The prospectship process was every day, all day.
Before you left the group for good, you cut contact with them for several years before eventually returning. How did you manage the logistics of separating yourself the first time?
The first four years after my release from prison, I disappeared. I didn’t involve myself with the Aryan Brotherhood at all. I had already wanted to get out of the Brotherhood before I was released, so it wasn’t any big revelation that hit me like a ton of bricks, it was just a lot of little things. I realized that if I didn’t stop trying to help them, I wasn’t going to be able to help myself. I had to make a decision to choose me and my [remaining] family over that life.
How did you manage to go from being somebody who was instrumental in the inner workings of the group to spontaneously withdrawing for years?
I was instrumental in everything while I was in prison. When I got out of prison, nobody knew where I lived and nobody knew where I was going, so I took that opportunity to disappear. I cut all contact with the Aryan Brotherhood. After those four years, when I eventually wanted to contact them, I just started putting word out on the street that I was looking for an Aryan Brotherhood member. It took me about six hours to find somebody. Within three days I was back in a position of power.
Were there any questions along the lines of, “Why didn’t you contact us for four years?”
Sure, yeah. I just told them that when I first got out, my probation officer had told me not to hang around these dudes and not be involved in the Aryan Brotherhood; that I quit going because I wasn’t trying to go back to prison. And that was true, I really wasn’t supposed to associate with them.
When you eventually left a second time, two members of the Aryan Brotherhood attempted to assassinate you. You managed to photograph your assailants and get the photos to the police. How did you maintain such a presence of mind immediately after being shot in the face?
I was so high on crystal methamphetamine that you couldn’t have knocked me out with a nuclear missile at that point. I’m not proud of this. I hate bringing up my drug use, because I’m so ashamed of it. What happened that day was that I went outside and noticed two guys in a truck circling the block. I knew they were out of place, because it was a couple white guys and I lived in a predominantly African American neighborhood. So I got in my car and pulled up behind them. I took pictures of their truck and who was in it, the tag, and all that, as best I could. I pulled up and told them, “This is my house. You better go.” Because I thought, a couple guys circling the block in a truck, they’re probably there to rob me. But they weren’t.
I went around them, got on the interstate, and then I saw they were following me. Once I realized they were following me, I hit about 110 miles an hour, to try to lose them and see if they would still follow me, and they did. At that time, I got my cellphone and I called 911. While I’m focused on telling 911 where I’m at, I fail to look back and keep track of the guys. I get shot. I remember my car crashing real loud. I slammed on the brakes, and some guy who I guess pulled over when he saw me crash said, “The police are on their way.” I gave him my phone and said, “Look, I have pictures of the people who shot me. I took pictures on my phone. Here’s the code to unlock it. Please don’t let me die without the police knowing.”
Then I start praying. He’s like, “Are you praying?” I said, “Yes.” He says, “Good, you need to, it’s bad.” To this day, I don’t know who that person was. I don’t know if he was an angel or what because as soon as he said, “The police are here,” he disappeared. And there’s no report of anyone having been there.
And then there was a second assassination attempt, after you were admitted to the hospital?
They put me in the hospital under the name John Doe until we could figure out more about the situation. Somebody from the Aryan Brotherhood still found me. He came up into my hospital room. I knew him, we had been locked up together, even hung out a little bit before I got shot and everything. He just appeared in the room and started talking. My wife and I were asleep, right there on the hospital bed, cuddled up. I didn’t know who it was at first, he just started talking about how he has a gun. You don’t tell me that. I let him know very clearly that he needed to leave my room. It turned out he knew a lot of people from the hospital, he had friends inside, so that was not good for me. As soon as he was gone, I was switched to a different floor, on a different wing, under a different alias.
You’ve talked about what a wakeup call this event was towards beginning your de-radicalization process. How would you describe de-radicalization, and how did you first become involved with it?
A lot of de-radicalization is exposure therapy to help the individual become sensitized to other ethnicities, cultures, and things like that. Many different aspects might be called for in each individual’s approach, nobody is the same. My de-radicalization happened a year after I got shot. I started trying to figure out how to become this new person through exposure therapy and through doing things with different cultures. I was finally able to go through life without any hateful rhetoric pouring through me. A lot of people going through de-radicalization are hardcore, they actually have a hate addiction. They might need a lot longer and might relapse back into that life. Hate is just like a drug.
What is the most misunderstood aspect of the de-radicalization process?
The most important thing to know is that it doesn’t happen overnight. But the most misunderstood thing? Well, people need to realize that extremists who are trying to become former extremists (formers) are still human beings. We need to show compassion to this group. Society as a whole has already shunned them because of what they affiliated themselves with before, so usually want nothing to do with accepting them back into society. People don’t realize that just because someone was once a Neo-Nazi doesn’t mean they can’t change.
So, many times I see comments about, “Once a Nazi always a Nazi, once a racist, always a racist.” And they don’t understand that a good portion of people didn’t join because it was racist. They joined for the family, the camaraderie, for the acceptance they weren’t getting anywhere else. Not all extremist groups are the same, so the reasons for joining never are. Some people who join are attracted to the illicit cartel-type drug business, like the Aryan brotherhood has. Other ones are more political. Then you have ones that exist purely to commit actions of violent extremism. They’re not all the same.
What were some of the especially challenging aspects of de-radicalizing for you (besides getting all 56 of your swastika tattoos removed)?
When you’re de-radicalizing, the first thing you as a former need to do is be completely open and vulnerable, which is hard, because people in this area of gangs and extremist groups are very paranoid and highly defensive. So, it’s really hard to get them to open up and be willing to change integral parts of themselves enough to take in views opposite to the rhetoric they’ve been taught, by either their groups, or even just the everyday racism that can be passed down through families.
I had to learn a lot of things. One of the first things I learned about was white privilege. This is going to sound kind of crazy, but I got very aggravated with my de-radicalization mentor, because she tried to tell me about white privilege. I had seen a post online explaining what white privilege was and I didn’t believe it, it made me mad. So, I asked my mentor and she’s like, “No, that post is right.” So I started to get mad at her too. But then I asked some other formers and they were all telling me the same thing, so I said, “Okay, well, maybe I need to take a step back and readjust this part of my outlook on life. Maybe this isn’t wrong, maybe it’s just something I didn’t know about.” Then, once I started to really learn about it, I was like, “How can I not have seen this before?”
Statistics suggest there has been an increase in white supremacist and white power attacks recently. What do you think this can be attributed to?
The platform is shifting. It used to be, “Hey, we all get tattoos, we all dress alike, we all do this and that together.” And we otherwise didn’t have a lot of other ways to really connect. Now a person today doesn’t need a group, per se, to radicalize. They can go to websites, even ones like YouTube, and be constantly fed information to self-radicalize. The biggest threat that we’re seeing today is self-radicalization. Those online groups cause aggressive people to gravitate together and that’s how they start self-fraternizing and boosting other people up to become lone-wolf attackers. I’m sad to say, something like 70-80% of people right now are being indoctrinated alone, through the internet.
Do you think politics play any role in the upward trend?
To be clear, I’m not saying that all Trump supporters are white supremacists—but I’ve never met a white supremacist that doesn’t support him. The look of the far right, or whatever you want to call it, has shifted. It is now people wearing suits and ties instead of tattoos and criminal records. They go into the military, they work in the government, they run for office, and things like that to get in a higher position. That’s why they’re hitting college campuses right now, because the new goal of the movement is to try to recruit people who will eventually ascend to those higher positions.
What does white supremacist recruitment on a college campus look like?
Usually it starts with soft hits like posting flyers that say, “It’s okay to be white and proud.” Then there will be people who see it and go “Yeah, true,” so they pick it up and start reading. Before they realize it, it gets a little deeper. Then they go to the website on the flyer, and it gets even deeper, and by the end of it, it’s extreme. But by then you’re desensitized to the material, so you’re willing to agree with these opinions, or even join an organization.
You have always firmly maintained that you were never a racist. How do you operate as a high-ranking member of the Aryan Brotherhood without ever holding racial prejudice?
I programmed myself a certain way to survive prison. But my best friends before, after, and even some during prison were Black. I’ve never been one to say, “I’m not going to hang out with this sort of people or that sort of people;” I’m going to hang out with whoever I want to, period. Like I said, a lot of people join for community. It’s that group of friends they’ve always wanted that finally accepts them for who they are. Yeah, the group may be a little weird, but they’re finally feeling accepted. So, like me, they’re not joining for the racism. They’re joining for that community and that belonging. The racism is taught to them by the group or by the websites or however they become radicalized, so they learn to compartmentalize it. Even if you don’t really understand what you’re saying, you still want to talk the talk so that you can feel included.
What’s the most important message you try to communicate with your public speaking?
That people change daily. We change routines, we change habits, we change a lot of things day by day. Sometimes it’s a change for the better, sometimes it’s for the worse. When someone is trying to change for the better, compassion needs to be brought to the table. If someone appears to be changing for the worse, instead of criticizing, we need to communicate. I think that’s one of the biggest issues we face as we help formers trying to de-radicalize. Just understand that a person who is trying to come out of an extremist group is completely losing their identity, again. Their status, community, whatever they might have had in the group, is gone now and they have to rebuild. Give a little positive energy to these people while they’re trying to find out who they are again and make that change.
Does the prevalence of “Once a Nazi, always a Nazi” rhetoric ever give you pause about engaging in volunteer work that reveals your past?
I love my volunteer work. This is part of my healing process. This is what helps me de-radicalize. This is what helps me become a better me, so it helps me heal. The way you combat that stigma is through actions. If someone thinks you haven’t really changed, you can never confront that person right off the bat. You’re never going to change someone’s mind through confrontation. You have to change somebody’s mind gradually through actions, like going out and doing things in the community, especially things that help fight the problems your past actions might have contributed to. That’s the biggest way that formers can show that they’re not in that group, or even in that mindset, anymore. I think that community engagement is the biggest way you can combat stigma. Because people can talk all day, but your actions show what you’re really thinking.
*This interview was originally published in the Brown Political Review and has been edited for length and clarity.